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College of Education > News and Publications > 2016: 10-12 news > Research leads doctoral student to world’s largest refugee camp

Research leads doctoral student to world’s largest refugee camp

An interest in education programs for refugee women has led Ally Krupar, a graduate student study adult education and comparative and international education, to the world’s largest refugee camp.

Dadaab research
Ally Krupar teaches women refugees in Dadaab how to use cameras to document life experiences. (Photo: Ally Krupar)
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — While completing her master’s degree in international peace and conflict resolution at American University, Ally Krupar had the opportunity to visit and conduct research in Liberia. During that time, she began to wonder about education opportunities for adults in conflict-affected areas around the world.

“It was clear that people in these areas have missed out on formal K-12 education, but were still very interested in continuing their education in one way or another,” she said.

Her curiosity led her to Penn State’s adult education and comparative and international education (CIED) dual doctoral program, where under the advisement of Associate Professor of Education Esther Prins, she recently completed her dissertation field work with a group of women refugees in Dadaab, Kenya. Located on the Kenyan-Somalian border, Dadaab is home to the largest refugee complex in the world, housing more than 320,000 migrant and displaced persons. Access to education is limited, especially for women.

“There are all these NGO educational programs aimed at adults that are supposed to empower women, especially women in conflict-affected environments, but what empowerment means to NGOs and what it means to the women refugees is different,” Krupar said, explaining that the majority of educational programs in Dadaab are coordinated by non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

“There’s not a clear connection between how these women are internalizing what it means to be empowered and using what they learn in their everyday lives and what the donor-driven programming is intending to do,” she said. “That is what my research is looking at.”

A forgotten population

“This is a population that is often under-studied and transient,” Krupar said. “It is also a growing population that requires different tools for integration and adult education is one of those tools, whether it’s integration into the host country or preparation for a return to their home country.”

Dadaab map
Located on the Kenyan-Somalian border, Dadaab is home to the largest refugee complex in the world, housing more than 320,000 migrant and displaced persons. (Graphic: Google Maps)
To gain a better understanding of adult education for refugees, Krupar traveled to Dadaab three times — once to conduct preliminary research and twice to collect data — where she employed the use of visual ethnography, a methodological approach that uses video to capture an educational environment and allows the researcher to have continued conversations with research participants based on the recordings.

During her first round of data collection, she interviewed NGO field workers and women refugees participating in adult education programs. She also recorded the non-formal education classes, which included sexual and gender-based violence advocacy programs, livelihood or skills-based trainings, and community development courses.

“I would show the recording to the NGO workers and the women, and we would talk about what was supposed to be empowering in that process,” Krupar said.

The interviews gave Krupar insight into how the NGOs and women refugees defined empowerment, but they did not demonstrate how the women applied empowerment to their daily lives. There were translation issues, she said, and it was difficult for the refugees to understand her questions.

The following summer she returned with a new idea — use photography with the women refugees.

“I really just gave the women cameras to go and take pictures of their daily life during and immediately following the trainings,” Krupar said. “Then we’d talk about how their understanding of empowerment from these trainings and classes was actually evident in their daily life.”

“Using the cameras really helped me to better understand the daily lives of these women.”

In Dadaab, women spend most of their days maintaining their households, Krupar said, explaining that, in general, refugees are not legally permitted to work in Dadaab.

“A lot of people will sell their food or make crafts or other products like dying fabric to sell for clothing or making soap or tailoring to make money,” she said. “So even though they can’t legally work, there is a very strong emphasis on contributing to the household.”

Although she is still coding and analyzing data, preliminary findings are emerging, Krupar said, and she is confident the study will provide a clear comparison between how NGO workers and women refugees are defining empowerment. She also hopes her findings will help NGOs tailor their adult education programming more specifically for women in conflict areas.

Dadaab research 2
A group of refugees participate in an education program in Dadaab, Kenya.(Photo: Ally Krupar)
A unique topic

When she started tossing around the idea of researching women refugees, Krupar knew there would be challenges, specifically of the financial variety.

“Given my specific research interests — adult education programming outside of formal education in conflict-affected environments and with refugees — gaining access to these locations and populations required travel from State College,” she said, adding that she also needed specific tools to complete the visual aspect of her research.

To help finance her research, she sought out opportunities through the College of Education and secured $1,100 from a research initiation grant and CIED summer research grant. The money allowed her to purchase data-collection tools such as cameras, software and printing materials. She also received $2,000 from Penn State’s Africana Research Center and more than $6,000 from external grants which provided support for travel expenses and data collection.

“Visual ethnography was the basis of my research and without the funds to purchase the necessary tools, I would not have had the opportunity to adequately collect data,” she said. “Without University support, my dissertation would not be possible.”

As a pioneer in the study of non-formal adult education programs for refugees, Krupar is aware that her research can lead to future studies and awareness of populations living in conflict-affected areas, awareness that she believes is necessary.

“I hope that this research and future research will further expand understanding of adult education programming with refugees, forced migrants and other populations affected by violence and conflict, both for scholars and practitioners,” she said. “There are connections between educational access and return to conflict. So if these programs exist, there could be more regional, and even global, prosperity and stability. It can snowball.”

By Jessica Buterbaugh (November 2016)